On Labor Day, the Pullman National Monument will open in Chicago, celebrating the role of Black workers in the American labor movement and transforming our nation’s economy for the better. But there’s a dark parallel to the Pullman story, which, unfortunately, is memorialized in the Illinois and United States policy to this day.

In the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, train companies like Pullman and restaurants based in the South resisted paying newly-freed Black workers. Each industry — and the rights of their workers — literally ended up taking different paths. Train companies were expanding their reach into the North, especially through the new Pullman sleeper cars, and owner George Pullman was very clear that he wanted to hire formerly enslaved workers because they were accustomed to servitude and would work for rock bottom wages. Both Pullman and restaurant owners invented a new loophole to pay Black workers even less — importing the idea of tipping from Europe, which had always been an expression of extra gratitude on top of wages — by instead establishing tips as a replacement for wages. In fact, some white restaurant owners actually charged Black workers for the supposed privilege of being able to work for tips.

White unions had already set a precedent for labor organizing among train workers, but refused to organize Black workers among their ranks. Still, because of that and the fact that train work literally connected Black workers to each other and to more radical political networks in the North, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was eventually organized by A. Phillip Randolph as the first Black labor union in the nation. Among other reforms, the union quickly pushed to abandon tipping as a replacement for wages.

Restaurant workers followed a very different path and in 1938, when the first federal minimum wage was established, restaurant workers were among those exempted. They were legally allowed to be paid $0.00 for decades. Eventually, this was codified into a formal subminimum wage — which is still law at the federal level, in Illinois and in 42 other states. Restaurant workers are legally paid less-than-full-minimum wage because customers are expected to pay their wages through tips. 

This policy, a vestige of slavery, perpetuates racism and sexism across the industry. Today, nationwide, women have to rely on customers for their tips, no matter what. The subminimum wage is responsible for the restaurant industry having the single worst rates of sexual harassment compared to any other industry in the nation. Additionally, Black women tipped restaurant workers earn $4.79 less per hour than their white male colleagues — largely because of discrimination in tipping patterns exacerbated by the subminimum wage. These conditions worsened during the pandemic, when tips decreased and health risks, hostility and harassment increased — all leading to 53% of all Illinois restaurant workers and 57% of women restaurant workers in IL reporting that they’re considering leaving the industry. Illinois workers were significantly more likely than the national sample to report that a full, stable, livable wage would be the most likely factor to make them stay at their job (84% v 78%); clearly, if we want to let restaurants fully reopen statewide, we must address this direct legacy of slavery immediately.

There is no single museum or monument for the subminimum wage; but this horrid legacy of slavery is memorialized in every restaurant and bar and diner throughout Illinois. And ironically, while our state is helping lift up the positive example of the Pullman worker organizing for fair wages and justice, Illinois continues to perpetuate injustice by maintaining the subminimum wage for restaurant workers. It’s a lose-lose proposition; we know that the seven states that have moved to One Fair Wage with tips on top have higher restaurant industry growth, higher small business growth rates and even higher rates of tipping. Everyone does better. And yet our state and our nation continue to prop up a slave-era policy that keeps workers down.

President Biden has been pushing legislation calling for a $15 minimum wage for tipped workers, with tips on top, and recently stated that this is the solution to the industry’s staffing crisis. Now more than ever, Illinois needs to follow his lead and pay workers a living wage all while ending this legacy of slavery, especially as restaurant work is more dangerous during Covid and occupancy and tipping are down. It’s a win win. We can save the restaurant industry while ensuring that restaurant workers are decently paid, safe and secure. If Illinois really wants to memorialize the leadership of the Pullman workers, it will end the subminimum wage and move to One Fair Wage with tips on top for all.

— Fourth Ward Alderman Sophia King

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